Huntington Fire Chief Talks Addiction, Second Chances

Rader gives speech at First State Capitol

Photo by Alec Berry Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, left, and Wheeling Jesuit University professor Dan Weimer participate in a panel discussion on the area’s opioid addiction crisis Thursday at the First State Capitol in Wheeling.

WHEELING — As fire chief in a city where almost 30 people overdosed in a four-hour period last year, Jan Rader finds herself at ground zero of a crisis she believes “could very well bankrupt our country.”

Rader — who was featured in the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e)” — spoke to a crowd of a few dozen people Thursday at the First State Capitol in downtown Wheeling, as part of a panel discussion exploring economic despair and hopelessness as contributors to addiction. A screening of the documentary preceded the discussion.

“We need to treat people with dignity and respect,” Rader said. “I don’t know people’s backstory when I go to an overdose. One bad car wreck, and that could be me.”

Rader said it takes very little to create an addiction.

Economic woe, past trauma, or a bad decision can lead anyone down the wrong path, she said. Increasingly, children are being born dependent on drugs.

Rader said more than one in five babies born at Cabell-Huntington Hospital are born addicted to heroin. She said the cost associated with detoxing newborns ranges from $53,000 to $55,000 per child, who often need continued treatment as they mature.

Huntington and surrounding Cabell County spend almost $100 million annually in overdose-related health care costs, Rader said. She added it’s common for people receiving emergency response not to have insurance coverage. With ever-rising costs and insurance companies offering less and less, she said, the picture seems bleak.

“It could very well bankrupt our country,” Rader said.

Also participating in the panel discussion was Dan Weimer, a professor at Wheeling Jesuit University researching and writing about the United States’ ongoing war against drugs.

Weimer highlighted existing policies which he said have contributed to the crisis. Specifically, he pointed to a measure passed under President George H.W. Bush in 1992 called the Prescription Drug User Fee Act. This allowed the Food and Drug Administration to collect fees from drug manufacturers to fund new drug approval processes.

Weimer said about half of the FDA is now funded by corporate interests. Because of this, he said the FDA is not pursuing legal action against companies who have flooded small towns with opioid pills.

One such place was Mingo County, where more than 9 million hydrocodone pills were provided to a single pharmacy in only two years. Three of the nation’s largest drug wholesalers — McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug Co. — continued to ship pills there despite a rising count of overdose deaths.

“This general ethos of small government has led to the FDA not doing its job,” Weimer said. “There’s been a general failure and erosion of our government’s regulatory capacity.”

Wheeling Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday, who attended Thursday’s discussion, said according to the Wheeling Fire Department, there were 81 overdoses in Wheeling between January and August. She said 64 of those were related to heroin.

Rader said it’s likely those numbers don’t paint the whole picture, as they don’t account for those who sought treatment for overdoses without calling for help.

Still, despite the weight of it all, Rader said many in West Virginia are eager to tackle this issue. She partnerships are easily formed right now between agencies of all sorts, whether faith-based or academic.

And, as in the film, Rader and others make the case that fixing the problem will take time and persistence.

“Relapse is part of the process,” she said of treating drug addicts. “But each time they get sober, they get a little stronger.”

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